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As You Like It

In The World of Refugees

Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C. (in association with Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival)
Sunday, January 29, 2017, G–5&7 (left stalls)
Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch

Orlando in blue denim shirt jacket, olive green long-sleeve tee, brown slacks and brown shoes is on one knee as Rosalind in her Ganymede disguse of red vest, denim shirt, pink slacks and brown patent leather shoes talks in his face. Celia, in a plaid country dress, sits on the stage in the background.
Orlando (Lorenzo Roberts, left) courts the pretend Rosalind, the boy Ganymede who is really Rosalind (Lindsay Alexandra Carter) while Celia (Antoinette Robinson) watches in the Folger Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It. Photo by Teresa Wood, Folger Theatre.

I’ve seen something like this before. It was in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2011 production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which we saw at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. On her exit line, “And I’ll sleep,” at the end of Act 4, Scene 1, Celia instead lay down on the stage and her father, Oliver, and the courtiers appeared in a dance of stags around and, eventually, with her. “Strange interpolation,” I called it in my review as the scene seemed to have nothing to do with the story, characters, theme, or anything else in this production.

A similar bit of stage business in the exact same moment occurs in the Gaye Taylor Upchurch–helmed production of As You Like It at the Folger. At least the lines of the scene following Celia’s determination to sleep and lie down on the stage remain: Jaques (a drolly humorous Tom Story) chastising the hunters who killed the deer. But then as, upon Jaques’s direction, they move into a song, the herd of foresters don stag masks and, dancing to beatbox rhythms and cheerleader chants, engage Celia with an antler ritual before she lies back down. When Celia wakes up, Antoinette Robinson playing her does something the RSC actress in the role did not: She looks at the audience with a “What the hell was that all about?” expression. Sure, the character might be shaking her head over a weird dream, but in the laughter her gesture gets, Robinson is representing the audience’s feelings.

This is no insignificant matter. An As You Like It which, by the intermission, is about to sink under heavy-handed theatricality and restrained acting, suddenly gets buoyed by individual performances and an audience-engaging spirit that send the production sailing to a happy ending, Hyman and all.

Upchurch doesn’t bring any restrictive conceptual reading to the play. I normally would write “thank goodness” after that statement, but ironically I laid my own conceptual reading onto this production, which just happened to open on the same weekend of President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and restricting Muslim immigration. Shakespeare’s As You Like It is about refugees, people who are either banished by a usurping duke or who escape the dangers and bullying nature of the ruling class. I heard extraordinary ferocity in Lindsay Alexandra Carter’s tone as her Rosalind stands up to Duke Frederick (Allen McCullough, stiff and threatening as Frederick, soft and gentle as Duke Senior) when he banishes her. “Let it suffice thee that I trust thee not,” he gives as his reason. “Yet your mistrust cannot make me a traitor,” Rosalind replies: “Tell me whereon the likelihood depends.” Of course, he can’t give her real evidence, so he just grips her by the chin and hisses vehemence at her.

As You Like It is a call to action,” Upchurch writes in her program notes, an introductory sentence that seems to be prophetic given the coincidental timing of this production against the backdrop of real-life drama being staged down the street. However, Upchurch is thinking in general terms. The play, she writes, is “a glorious celebration of great risk-taking and human folly, entreating us to embrace both the sublime and the ridiculous.” Her goal is that we, the audience, will join in “this celebration of both the ridiculous and the sublime nature of love.” A juxtaposition of sublime and ridiculous may be her starting point in staging this play, but what is sublime and what is ridiculous easily get twisted in translation.

The show opens with the entire cast coming on stage singing “Under the Greenwood Tree” as a gospel blues number, then in unison they speak the first line of the famous speech from the play, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” But this one diverges after, “They have their exits and their entrances,” as one actor shouts, “Enter Orlando!” and there’s Lorenzo Roberts as Orlando in brown slacks, denim shirt over long-sleeved tee, and felt porkpie hat. Costume Designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane uses modern dress, with the court in gray dinner suits (with Rosalind and Celia in luscious ball gowns), the Arden natives in pastel jeans and overalls, and Touchstone in suits of blue and green plaid and baby blue with red rose prints that must have come from the same tailor who dressed Batman’s Joker and Riddler.

The notion of formality in the court is pounded home with an uninspired, kind-of-courtly dance of the courtiers in front of Duke Frederick and Celia, who are standing on the balcony above a pair of wooden doors that serve as a backdrop to an empty stage (scenic design by John McDermott; the doors will open to a forest landscape when the action gets to Arden). Music is a major element in As You Like It, and Upchurch milks that element and churns it into hard butter with overlong song and dance interludes. The show clocks in at just under three hours, including a 15-minute intermission, but it seems much longer. Though I detected little cutting of the text, the extended musical interludes—most sung as Appalachian blues—added at least 20 minutes to the show.

This grinding pace gets only a couple of reprieves in the play’s first half. Will Hayes plays the wrestler, Charles, with the look, gait, and poses of a Mixed Martial Arts fighter, though the wrestling match itself ho-hums to an anti-climactic conclusion. Rosalind and Celia pierce the desultory proceedings with their squealing-girls' interactions, wherein Carter beautifully sells Rosalind’s sudden and complete crush on Orlando, and Robinson heroically displays Celia’s total loyalty and care for her cousin.

Corin in wide-brimmed straw hat, tan suede vest, tan long-sleeve work short, brown slacks and cross-legged Touchstone in green and blue plaid jacket and pants, chartruse shirt, yellow bowtie, red, white, and blue socks with Hush Puppy shoes sit on three bags of grain.
Corin (Jeff Keogh) and Touchstone (Aaron Krohn) discuss the merits of country life versus court life in the Folger Theatre production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It. Below, Silvius (Brian Reisman) presses his love suit on a reistant Phoebe (Dani Stoller). Photos by Teresa Wood, Folger Theatre.

However, the production comes charging out of the intermission break with Touchstone (Aaron Krohn) and Corin (Jeff Keogh) comparing court and country lives as they simultaneously sip from flasks, the motley fool using a metal flask, the old shepherd a flask made of leather. Keogh gives a gently casual reading to Shakespeare’s lines while Krohn captures the foolery and wisdom of the fool and a jester’s sense of perfect timing and playing the audience. When Krohn comes out later wearing his rose-print suit, he acknowledges the audience’s laughter with an “I know, but what are you gonna do?” gesture.

Krohn also is teamed with a wonderful second banana in Kimberly Chatterjee’s Audrey, the goat herder Touchstone aims to bed by crook or, as it turns out, marriage. While Krohn’s Touchstone is engaged with Jaques over “marrying well,” Chatterjee’s Audrey is in the background preparing for her wedding: she pulls straw out of her hair, rubs her teeth with her fingers, sniffs her armpits then wipes them with the hem of her dress, and reaches fully inside her blouse to adjust her breasts.

Next up we finally meet Phoebe, of whom we’ve heard so much about from the lovesick Silvius (Brian Reisman, who maintains an earnest sweetness in his courting of Phoebe). Dani Stoller, making her third Folger appearance in less than a year, lifts Phoebe to the ranks of great Shakespeare comic characters with her cynically intelligent portrayal of the shepherdess; she even approaches her crush on Ganymede (Rosalind disguised as a boy) with acute reasoning. “Sweet Phoebe, pity me,” Silvius implores. “Why, I am sorry for thee, gentle Silvius,” she replies, Stoller’s tone implying that she already is plotting a move on the boy she’s just met—the recollection of whom she begins to recite with a deft display of her unbridled emotions waging war with her rational self.

Shakespeare doesn’t give us any clues that Phoebe will ever truly like Silvius let alone love him; she marries him on compunction of Rosalind’s charge that she is to marry Silvius if she denies Ganymede (which she does upon learning Ganymede is Rosalind). This production gives Phoebe a most suitable turning point for her affections in the great “what 'tis to love” sequence. “Good shepherd, tell this youth [Ganymede] what 'tis to love,” she orders Silvius, and each example Silvius delivers ends with his saying “And so am I for Phoebe,” to which Phoebe says “and I for Ganymede,” after which Orlando, standing by, pines, “And I for Rosalind” leaving the disguised Rosalind to insist, “And I for no woman.” This cycle is repeated two more times (before Rosalind breaks it off, complaining it’s “like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon”), and it’s on the third cycle that Silvius expands from one line of explanation to a five-line reverie:

It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty, and observance,
All humbleness, all patience and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all observance.

Stoller’s Phoebe becomes mesmerized by Silvius's meditation on true love and even stumbles when it’s her turn to say, “And so am I for Ganymede.” By the time we get to the play's final scene of coupling, she enters on friendly terms with Silvius. Clearly, losing out on Ganymede has become something of a win-win for her.

Silvius in fodora hat, jeans jacket over dark olive vest, patterned scarf, and jeans with watches Phoebe talking with her hands up and wearing pink overalls and a pink and purple pattereed shirt. In the background is a backdrop of trees.Meanwhile, the two lead females continue their strong run into the production's second half. As the character of Rosalind blossoms in the play’s second half, and Carter continues her exuberant portrayal of the young woman now disguised as a boy, the part of Celia clamps into a mostly silent part. Robinson, however, maintains her spirited portrayal of the first half, garnering laughs with her reactions and perfectly paced interjections. Even “And I’ll sleep” earns a big laugh in the exasperated way Robinson says it and plops down petulantly on her picnic blanket. Then comes the stag dream. With Robinson’s subsequent reaction, the proceedings subtly—sublimely, even—cross into the realm of theater magic.

Thanks to Robinson as well as Carter, Stoller, Krohn, Chatterjee, Keogh, and Michael Glenn as Orlando’s really mean brother, Oliver, returning to the stage as the now-redeemed and companionable bro, the audience becomes fully engaged in the good life of Arden and the possibilities of romance. Thus, this production is able to carry out what many directors try to avoid: keeping true and intact the appearance of Hyman, the Greek god of marriage ceremonies, for the final scene. Played by Daven Ralston, miked and speaking with an echo, this god’s mystical appearance in this staging is a perfectly reasonable development.

And it is, “wholly, deeply human,” a phrase Upchurch uses in her program notes. “My hope is that you will find refuge here at the Folger with fellow seekers; that you will bear witness to a true moment played out in front of you that you might recognize as wholly, deeply human.” That it’s the humanness of this play and this production instead of its theatricality that achieves such a refuge is also what we seek on the stage that is all the world.

Eric Minton
February 1, 2017

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